The Zen of Temping

Last year, Joshua Ferris wrote one of the best books I've read about office life called "Then We Came to the End." Admittedly, unless I'm mistaken, there are not a lot of novels in this genre. I don't think many are yearning to read about life in a cubicle. Or perhaps I'm wrong. Perhaps there are legions of pirates, astronauts, and superagents longing for some good old escapist fare set in an office. There's nothing like taking the edge off some dangerous espionage with a bestseller about the trials and travails of reading spreadsheets and making PowerPoint presentations.
Nevertheless, Ferris' book is at times brilliant. My favorite passage comes during a downturn in business.

Hank Neary was an avid reader. He arrived early ... with a book taken from the library, copied all its pages on the Xerox machine, and sat at his desk reading what looked to a passerby like the honest page of business. He'd make it through a three-hundred page novel every two or three days.

This is the type of pure genius I wish I had possessed when I was temping in offices during the 1990s. There were several temp jobs on which I did read. For example, if not for being a temp, I don't think I would have ever gotten through Thomas Pynchon's mammoth "V." I read that over several days sitting at the front desk of an office, answering a phone that rang approximately once every seventeen minutes.

But, on many jobs, even if I had nothing to do, I had to appear busy, lest the HR director suddenly decide that I was no longer needed. I didn't dare read a book then, but reading a photocopied book would have been perfect. I soon learned that as long as it looked like you were doing work, you were safe.

As a writer, I also discovered that I could write on the job without anyone noticing. Even if no one had given me a task all day, supervisors would assume I was busy if they saw me typing. A few times, someone would start to give me work, and then stop. "Oh, you're busy," they would say and walk away before my guilty conscience had a chance to confess.

Back then, I never understood how people could let me sit there all day doing nothing, but I now understand, having been on the other side of the equation. Occasionally, I've had temps working for me, and I almost never know what work to give them. It always seems easier just to do the project myself rather than explaining it to someone else. The stress of coming up with a project for them to do -- you know, something exciting so that the temp won't think I'm lame -- usually gets to me, and I wind up giving them almost no work.

However, once in while, I have found tasks for them, and it's always a wonderful experience. Back when I was temping, I was always curious how people could be so impressed whenever I completed a task. People would shower me with praise for collating, and I never knew why. But now I do. Good temps can be like magical woodland creatures who materialize out of nowhere to do all the stupid projects that you have no interest in doing. On some days, it's like having an enchanted unicorn ride into your office on a rainbow to do that giant pile of photocopying that has been staring at you for the last six weeks.

Now, when I have a temp, I am ecstatic because it means that whatever lame, tedious project I was stuck with can be done by someone else, allowing me to be (allegedly) more productive. And if the temp can actually do the job decently, well, bonus!

"Wow, that's great. I was totally not going to bother putting those in alphabetical order."

Now, fortunately or not, I don't really have the time to goof off at work. I don't miss the boredom of having an empty day. I'm happy to have things to do, but on some days it would be nice to have one of those temp jobs again. Sometimes, a little mindless collating is just the kind of Zen-like activity I need to get through the day. If only, once in a while, I could hire a temp to do the latest financial projections, while I sat on the floor with a giant pile of filing, that would be perfect.

    A periodic humor column, disguised as a blog. New columns published on Tuesdays or not as the case may be.


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